Parasha Lech Lecha

Like Terach or Abraham? This evening I am going to do something quite audacious.  This evening I am going to do something very bold, something that I have never done before on a pulpit. This evening I am going to do something that requires a lot of hutzpah – or “choots-spa”, as Michelle Bachman would say. This evening I am going to disagree with one of the greatest sages who ever lived!   I am going to take issue with one of the greatest Jewish minds of the 20th century.  Who is this great Jewish sage who our fearless rabbi is about to take on, you are asking yourselves?  Why, none other than The Chofetz Chayim! For those of you who have not heard of him, The Chofetz Chaim was born in Europe in 1838. Despite his recognition as a scholar and an extraordinarily righteous man, he refused to accept a pulpit and lived in a small town where his wife supported them running a grocery shop.  The Chofetz Chayim was able to devote himself to studying and writing and teaching Torah.  He is best known for his book on Lashaon Harah – gossip – and for his Mishnah Berurah, a 6 volume commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, the authoritative work of Jewish law. The Chofetz Chaim died in 1933. Each week this year I have been studying a selection from the Chofetz Chaim’s Torah commentaries.  This week he cites the verse in this week’s Torah portion, “Abraham took his family and his possessions and went forth to go to the Land of Caanan – and he came to the land of Caanan.” He compares this to a verse about Terach, Abraham’s father that we read last week.  There the Torah says, “Terach went forth from Ur Kasdim to go to the Land of Caanan, and he came to the city of Haran, and he settled there.”  Comparing these two verses teaches us a valuable lesson, says the C.C.  We should be like Abraham and not like Terach. When we set out to do something, we must not deviate from our goal nor change our plans, like Terah did – we should continue until we accomplish our task, as Abraham shows us.  We must persevere until we reach our goal. Therein lays my disagreement with the Chofetz Chaim.  Here is where I take issue!  I am going to argue, and I am going to show you here this evening, that sometimes you need to be like Terach, and change your mind, and not be like Abraham, and persevere in your journey.  I am going to prove this to you by telling you the true story of and Israeli man named Nadav ben Yehudah. Last May Nadav ben Yehuda, set off to become the youngest Israeli ever to climb to the top of Mt. Everest.  Nadav was only 24 years old.  With a summit of 29,000 feet, or almost 6 miles above sea level, Mount Everest is the tallest mountain in the world and a very dangerous one to scale.  The first known person to reach the summit was Sir Edmund Hilary, in 1953. Two hundred and sixteen people have lost their lives trying to climb Mt. Everest.  Their bodies usually remain on the mountain – it is too dangerous to bring them down to give them a proper burial. They are well preserved because of the cold.  Climbers pass them on their way to the summit, a grisly reminder of their own fate should they falter on the way. On an average day in May, when Nadav tried to reach the Mt. Everest summit, the temperature reaches a high of minus 17 Fahrenheit, and the winds howl at 50 mph.  The air is so thin that it only contains 1/3 of the oxygen of sea level air.  Yet Nadav ben Yehudah is a profession mountaineer.  He had always dreamed of climbing to the top of Mt. Everest.  He dreamed of the glory that would accompany his achievement, the riches that would be sure to follow, and the name he would make for himself in the annals of Jewish history. On the night before his assault on the summit, he slept at a camp about a half mile below the peak.  He didn’t get a good night’s sleep. Perhaps he was thinking about the six people who had already died this year trying to make the summit.  Perhaps it was the rickety tent or the bed of rocks he slept on that night at camp. He woke before sunrise and set off for the top of the world. He was about 900 feet below his goal, and it appeared he would reach the top of Everest before sunrise.  He was so close, he could taste the triumph! It was then that he recognized a figure sprawled out beside an icy ridge before him, unconscious.  It was Aydin Irmak, a Turkish climber who Nadav had met at the base camp.  A number of climbers had already passed the unconscious climber on their way to the summit.  Nadav ben Yehudah had a choice to make. He could pass by the helpless climber, as others had, and leave him to die from exposure.  Or, he could abandon his quest for the top of Mt. Everett and try to rescue the half frozen Irmak.  Even if he tried to get him down the mountain, there was no guarantee that he would get him down alive.  Perhaps both of them would perish in the rescue attempt. What would you do in that situation?  Attempt a dangerous rescue that had only a modest chance of succeeding?  Or climb to the top of Everest, only 900 feet away, and become the youngest Israeli ever to do so.  Fame and fortune were within his reach. Nadav knew that he had to make a choice. He could not do both. I will let Nadav Ben Yehudah tell you his choice in his own words.  “"People passed him by and didn’t do a thing. I didn’t think for a second about politics – the fact that he was Turkish and I was Israeli. I also didn’t think about the glory. All I thought about is that I can save this person – and that’s what I did." So Nadav abandoned his quest for the summit and turned back. Nadav had to carry the injured Turk down the mountain alone, attached to a harness.  It took ten hours to get him to the base camp.  Both were flown by helicopter to Katmandu and hospitalized. Ayden Irmak survived and regained his health. Nadav suffered severe frostbite if his fingers because during the rescue he had to remove his gloves.  “I hope the doctors don’t have to amputate them,” he said, “because I want to keep climbing”. In our study group on Thursday we were discussing a passage from Isaiah about the uncertainty of life.  In this context Rabbi Rami Shapiro wrote, “G-d is asking you to live without certainty; knowing only the way – justice, kindness, and compassion – and giving no thought to the destination.”  Nadav ben Yehudah certainly had a destination – the top of Mt. Everest.  But when uncertainty crossed his path, his “way” became not the shortest path to the summit. His way was his justice, his kindness, and his compassion.  It was no detour. He was on that path all along. Our world, for the most part, looks at things the other way around.  It values the destination more than the way we achieve it.  Witness the athletes, for whom winning is more important than the way they wins. Witness the bankers for whom making a profit is more important than the way they make a profit. And yes, witness the politicians for whom getting elected is far more important than the way they get elected.  Witness all the climbers who made their way around an injured fellow in their single minded attempt to reach the top of the world. Nadav ben Yehudah never reached the heights of Mt. Everest.  I think you will agree with me that he reached heights far greater than that.  I think the Chofetz Chaim would have been proud of Nadav ben Yehudah.  May he serve as an example and as a reminder to us all.  Yes, we should persevere in our goals, like Abraham.  But we ought not to be so single minded that we shunt aside our values on the way to reaching our destination.  Sometimes, it is better to be like Terach.   Shabbat Shalom